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Composing against the tide.

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

Early 20th-century Australian female composers and their piano music

A surprisingly large number of women born in Australia between 1860 and 1915 became composers of piano music. For most of them this was not a task easily accomplished - they did not always receive encouragement, let alone earn a living from their creative work. Many of these composers have been largely forgotten, most of their works perhaps irretrievably lost. Jeanell Carrigan has been researching and discovering this repertoire, playing and recording the music of these women - and now writing their story in a new book entitled Composing Against the Tide, available now from the AMC.

Composing Against the Tide is the story of thirty Australian women, born between 1860 and 1915, who were composers of piano music. Although some achieved certain renown in their lifetime and their music was performed and published, most are completely forgotten today. Why have most of them been forgotten, their music relegated to library archives? Was it because their music has since been classified as old-fashioned - or because they were women composers? Were their battles any harder than those of their male peers at the same time? Was it because they wrote using outdated idioms?

Not all of those composers have been forgotten: the list includes Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Margaret Sutherland, Dulcie Holland, Miriam Hyde and Mirrie Hill, and their lesser-known colleagues Meta Overman, Marjorie Hesse, Linda Phillips, Esther Rofe and Phyllis Batchelor. It also includes the almost completely unknown Mona McBurney, Una Bourne, May Brahe, Katherine (Kitty) Parker, Vera Buck, Iris de Cairos-Rego, May Summerbelle, Maud Fitz-Stubbs, Josephine Bell, Esther Kahn and Florence Donaldson Ewart.

My long-term project to research the music of these composers has resulted in three concrete outputs. It was always the aim to collect as many of the scores of all the women born into this time frame and to publish those scores. This has been completed. There are now three volumes (see the AMC Shop for details volume I; volume II, volume II) of scores published, containing 65 works by 25 of the mentioned composers. Remaining works not included in the volumes are being typeset for digitisation and storage purposes. The same 65 works have also all been recorded, and the recordings are available with the scores so that anyone who can not play the instrument can still hear the music performed. Also a 'favourites' compilation disc Nostalgia - Piano Music by Australian Women has been produced, and broadcast now on many occasions nationally and internationally.

Part three of the project was to put the composers' lives and works into a written document. The book Composing against the tide gives a historical overview, biographical details about the composers, and information about their piano music. The book is already available, and it'll be launched officially on 4 March in Burradoo by composer Ann Carr-Boyd.

As hinted above, there are most likely several reasons why the piano music and these composers may have been discarded. I firstly assumed that it was because they were women, daring to venture into the male domain of composition. Or perhaps it was because their music was very old-fashioned, even at the time it was composed, and used an unoriginal and copied idiom. Did these composers venture into the compositional trends of the time - serialism, neo-classicism, used modes of their own devising? Or was it because the music was badly composed and had not stood the test of time - did they in fact deserve to be forgotten? Or was their music lost simply because it was not published and existed in a single, unphotocopied, facsimile form? Was it that composers of only piano music were not considered important enough?

After my research, I was convinced that gender discrimination was certainly an issue. It was difficult for women living in the early part of the 20th century to gain any recognition as a composer. As composer Nigel Butterley has said: 'In the 40s and 50s commissions were scarce enough for men. They were an absolutely closed shop for women.' Margaret Sutherland received her first commission when she was 70 - she had made the decision to become a composer almost 45 years earlier, in 1923. It is also estimated that, up to that time, she had scarcely made $160 a year in royalties. This is a woman who wrote operas, symphonic works, works for small and large ensembles; at least 20 major works for piano and many other compositions.

However Margaret Sutherland fared better than many women. At least she felt she could state out loud her decision to become a composer. Linda Phillips was often asked why she was not at home tending the children. Esther Rofe once said, 'The funny thing is, if you are writing a letter you are left in peace; but if you are composing… people think you can still talk about the man who fell from the Big Ben's scaffolding, or the hunger marches through Hyde Park'. May Brahe recalled having to stop composing to place the weekly meat order with the butcher who was at the door. Some of the composers married, and domestic duties and child-raising sapped energy that could have been used for creative pursuits.

There were opportunities for women to study composition, however - not only in Australia but overseas as well. Fritz Hart, (1874-1949), born in England and arriving in Australia in 1909, was a teacher of a great many women composers in Melbourne in the 1920s and '30s. His students included Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Margaret Sutherland, Linda Phillips, Esther Rofe, Vera Buck and Phyllis Batchelor. Universities in Australia allowed women to study arts much more readily than medicine, and there was, from 1891, firstly the Melbourne Conservatorium, followed by the Elder and then Sydney Conservatoriums in 1915.

Many of the women travelled to England or Europe and were given the opportunity to study with English and European composers such as Arnold Bax, John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Nadia Boulanger, and others. Some of the composers missed out on the opportunity: Mirrie Solomon (Hill) would have left for England in 1914 but World War I broke out. Linda Phillips was not allowed to travel unchaperoned and went on to marry when she was very young. Phyllis Batchelor decided that it was wiser to study in Australia with Fritz Hart and then establish herself in Melbourne before the jobs were all taken!

Was their music considered old-fashioned? Composer Alfred Hill, said (in an ABC interview on 28 March 1953), 'To me there are only two kinds of music - good or bad. All old music has at one time been modern and all modern music will one day become old so why worry? Time is a great critic that puts them in their place'. All of the composers that I examined wrote using a musical language that became their own, recognisable voice. Composers such as Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Margaret Sutherland and Meta Overman each developed a very original voice in their compositions, based on their experiences and influences from the teachers with whom they studied. Glanville-Hicks studied with Fritz Hart, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Egon Wellesz (the serialist - even if only for six months) and Nadia Boulanger, as well as absorbing influences from the many contemporary composers in America when she worked as critic for the Herald Tribune in New York. She began perhaps with the English pastoral style, then encountered serialism, then the neoclassicism of Boulanger. Her music is diverse while at the same time original, reflecting these influences.

Margaret Sutherland began with Fritz Hart, then spent time studying with Arnold Bax who was more mentor than teacher. Her music was influenced firstly by the English pastoral style and that of Bax. She soon integrated these influences into her own personal idiom absorbing other styles of the early 20th century, such as music of Bartók, Hindemith and neo-classicism as found in Poulenc, Ravel and Milhaud.

Dutch-born composer Meta Overman studied in the 1930s and '40s, before coming to Australia with teacher and composer Wilhelm Pijper who was one of the foremost Dutch teachers of composition of the 20th century. From 1930, Willem Pijper was the director of the Rotterdam Conservatorium - his own compositional style had been influenced by the music of Debussy, Ravel and Mahler. Looking at the works of Meta Overman it is possible to see that her style developed constantly. Her later works were influenced by Keith Humble and, in those works, she uses alternative notation, random theory and electronics.

These three composers definitely embraced the current compositional trends of the time - it's unlikely their music would have been considered old-fashioned at the time of composition. Some of the other composers that I examined wrote in the fashion that they had adopted when learning their craft. In some cases it was the late romantic English/ European style, but all of them showed development and a willingness to be flexible in the style they used.

Regarding opportunities to get works published, all Australian composers, male and female, suffered from the expectation that what originated from Australia was not as good as something from Europe or America. It was difficult to get works published, and even harder for the female composers. Almost every composer I researched had works published under pseudonyms - mostly the pseudonyms they adopted were male names. This often allowed them to be published without question.

Looking at the publication history of many of these composers, it is possible to observe that the main success came through the publication of pedagogical works or songs, particularly in those cases where the works were utilised in an exam situation by, for example, the AMEB or similar organisations. The composers Miriam Hyde, Dulcie Holland, Mirrie Hill, Josephine Bell and Marjorie Hesse were all educators, performing the role of piano teachers and examiners for the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB). A great deal of the piano repertoire they wrote was intended for students at a particular grade or skill level. Those works that were published have, to a great extent, survived. The works that were published and held in any sort of library can now be accessed online and downloaded, thanks to the National Llibrary of Australia's digitising process.

Anything which was not published, however, ran the risk of being lost. Meta Overman lost a piano sonata because it was left on a bus - there had only been one copy. Glanville-Hicks had bonfires every ten years or so, burning works she didn't want to keep. She also lived on three continents and moved constantly. It is unlikely she would have kept every piece of music she wrote in facsimile. Margaret Sutherland threw away a great deal of what she wrote. There are many records referring to piano works being composed and performed in multiple recitals, however no copies of that piano music is to be found - yet! Perhaps they may still be discovered.

Another reason some composers' works are better known may be connected to the other repertoire that they wrote. I found that some of the composers, for example Iris de Cairos-Rego, Marjorie Hesse and Josephine Bell, only wrote piano music. Their colleagues who composed more and larger works, such as operas or symphonic works (for example Margaret Sutherland and Peggy Glanville-Hicks) became well known for these works and their piano music was listed as just something they also wrote.

Was their music just not well written enough? Deciding whether a piece of music is good or bad is usually contemplated subjectively. In some cases, I thought the music I found was absolutely fabulous - it took my breath away. The very small output of seven works by Kitty Parker, for example, is exquisite - as well written for the piano as anything written at the same time and in the same style. Parker was a great fan of Percy Grainger, and heavily influenced by Grainger's style. He introduced Kitty to the music of Ravel and Debussy that she had never previously encountered. Grainger said of Parker: 'I have never found anyone in a million places who plays with the charm, empathy, skill, and sweet feeling that you always had in your superb playing.'

Miriam Hyde, Iris de Cairos-Rego, Dulcie Holland and Marjorie Hesse were pianists as well as teachers. They understood the actual craft of playing - what is possible, what works best, what is the best way of writing on an instrument that they were so familiar with. This was good music!

After great deliberation on the 'why' for the neglect, I could only surmise that it was due to a combination of different causes. It was not only gender-related, not only because they perhaps didn't evolve as composers after the initial influences that they absorbed and portrayed; not merely because they only wrote piano music or their music was only sporadically published, but a combination of all these reasons. They did often meet blatant sexism; they did suffer from a lack of publication. Their works were lost and left on buses, they were sometimes considered too old fashioned and in some case their output was very small and exclusive. These factors together created a situation of being forgotten.

Why should it be important to rediscover these composers and their music - what possible connection could it have to someone living in 2016? My motto has always been: if Australians don't play and promote Australian music who will? Can we really expect musicians from Europe, America or Asia to be excited about our music if we aren't? So, for me, to play and promote the piano music written by Australian women is very important. The book Composing Against the Tide is my attempt at reviving interest in these inspirational women composers.


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